Finding an ally and a lifelong partner: Bronson Alcott, part 4 (reflections on Eden’s Outcasts)

Part 4 of a series on Bronson Alcott: his rise, fall and redemption, based on reflections from John Matteson’s biography Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father

If you want to refresh your memory on previous posts in this series, here are the links:

Read Part One here
Read Part Two here
Read discussion question here
Read Part Three there

An important connection is made

Bronson Alcott’s first school in Cheshire, CT began to fail and yet, the door was opening to greater opportunities. Thanks to the efforts of Bronson’s cousin William (see Part Two for details on William and his influence on Bronson), Samuel May received a report of Bronson’s accomplishments (page 29).

Samuel May

Samuel May, son of Colonel Joseph May and brother to Abba (Bronson’s future wife), led the Unitarian church in Brooklyn, CT. The Mays were a prominent Boston family descended from the Sewalls and Quincys (his great-aunt Dorothy had been married to John Hancock).

Bronson wins over the reformer . . .

May had the heart of a true reformer and was an important and influential man: a great connection for Bronson which William helped to forge. May was impressed by William’s report and wanted to meet  Bronson.

Bronson could be very charming and coupled with his passion for education, impressed May deeply when they met. Samuel wrote of Bronson, “I have never . . . been so taken possession of by any man I ever met. He seemed to me like a born sage and saint.”  Bronson had found his ally.

 . . . and the reformer’s sister

Abigail May

Abba also found Bronson’s charms irresistible: “his upright carriage; his gracious, almost overly elaborate manners; the quick, playful uplift of his head; and his profound earnestness.” (page 31)

Beyond the attraction, Abba, a well-read woman of strong intellect, was inspired by Bronson’s mind, his love of learning and reading, and his passion for educational reform.

She and Bronson would eventually marry after a very long courtship. Abba stood by his side literally through thick and thin, defending his right to live by his principles despite the detrimental effect they would have on their family life. There is no doubt that behind this man was a great woman.

Read more about Abba here.

One more attempt in CT

But before that union, Bronson would continue to explore his options as an educator. Bolstered by Samuel May’s approval, Bronson attempted another school, this time in Bristol, CT (page 30). Parents in Bristol were even less tolerant of Bronson’s educational practices and the school quickly failed.

William Ellery Channing

On to Boston, and opportunity

It was then that Bronson knew he had to go to Boston, a center of intellectual activity and enlightenment. During this period (and perhaps for the last time in our country’s history), the intellectual leaders were found in the pulpit (page 33). Bronson pursued his enlightenment by listening to the great ministers of the day, most especially William Ellery Channing of the Unitarian Church.

Affirmation from Unitarianism

The Unitarian faith seemed to fit right in with Bronson’s educational ideas. Matteson writes, “Channing routinely emphasized the paternal nature of God and implied that the world was a school for the spirit in which human beings were the pupils . . . Channing saw God as both father and teacher, a view that dovetailed precisely with Alcott’s ideas of education.”

Bronson believed himself to be a type of spiritual father, encouraging the divine in the child through his words and example.

A new school with a benefactor

Finding affirmation for his thinking, Bronson began a school on Common Street in Boston in 1828 with Channing as benefactor (page 34). In an attempt to best approach Pestalozzi’s domestic model of school being like family, Bronson hired a female assistant.

In that same year, Bronson was to meet another Unitarian minister, one who would become his benefactor for life. I will continue on this topic in Part 5.


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